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Posted December 4, 2012

Book: Rethinking Pluralism: Ritual, Experience and Ambiguity
Authors: Adam B Seligman and Robert P. Weller
Oxford Press. New York. 2013. pp. 245

An Excerpt from the Jacket:

How can we order the world while accepting its enduring ambiguities? Rethinking Pluralism suggests a new approach to the problem of ambiguity and social order, which goes beyond the default modern position of notation (resort to rules and categories to disambiguate). The book argues that alternative, more particularistic modes of dealing with ambiguity through ritual and shared experience better attune to contemporary problems of living with differences. It retrieves key aspects of earlier discussions of ambiguity evident in rabbinic commentaries, Chinese texts, and Greek philosophical and dramatic works, and applies those texts to modern problems.

An Excerpt from the Book:

The Chinese festivities at the lunar New Year are a good example of how the ritualized rhythms of presence and absence create a temporary world.

The most important events of the celebrations are purely family rituals, especially on the eve and the first day of the New Year. No priests or religious specialists of any kind need be involved, and there are no sacred texts. Distant relatives return home for the events, and this is the busiest travel time of the year, as almost all work shuts down and people head for home.

Much that goes on in this ritual is purely within the realm of family custom, although those customs tend to be very widely shared, at least in broad outline. We will mention only one key event --- burning incense in front of the ancestral altar. While not everyone has an ancestral altar any more, especially in urban mainland China, this rite was crucially important. The act itself was extremely simple, with the male(s) of the oldest generation first offering incense in honor of the ancestors, followed by the women of that generation, then the males of the next generation, and so on through the youngest generation of girls.

This little ritual creates a simple world, an idealized Confucian portrait of the family. This family is autonomous and independent. Quite unlike most other ritual occasions throughout the year, reciprocal visiting and feasting is not important on this day. Internally, the family appears a neatly stacked hierarchy, with the living recognizing their debts to the dead, with each generation respecting the one before it, and with women subservient to men of their own generation. Such a family is in fact created by the very acts and orders of worship, but only for those few minutes of the ritual. It performs and thus creates the way that fathers and sons or husbands and wives should be; it creates the ancestors themselves. Once it ends, however, this imagined hierarchical community may be just one of several different ideal images of family structure, competing, for example, with ideals of gender equality or the benefits of nuclear families. And all of these ideals also contrast with the realities of families as people live in them from day to day --- with the absences of members scattered across the world, sulking teenagers who play too many computer games, spouses who drink or gamble too much, or elderly parents who can no longer command the authority that the ritual grants them. The ritual really does shape the family into a particular form, but like all rituals, its performed world soon comes to an end.

This end, however, is not complete. Ticks have their tocks, and the period of absence, of waiting for the next year to turn, is also a kind of yearning for that moment when an ideal family can again be performed. The rhythm here is crucial, because it lets us know with certainty that the occasion will come again when we can perform that family again, erasing the fights and infidelities, overcoming even the losses and deaths for an image of family that is forever. Repetition may be an illusion that we continually renew, but it is an illusion that gives us a sense of a shared past and future --- and thus of a community.

Table of Contents:

The importance of being ambiguous: Interlude: ambiguity, order and deity

Notation and its limits: Interlude: The Israelite Red Heifer and the edge of power in China

Ritual and rhythms of ambiguity: Interlude: Crossing the boundary of empathy

Share experience: Interlude: Experience and multiplicity